Iris Apfel Is More Than Her Plumage

Albert Maysles' documentary, Iris, inspires and amuses
May 28, 2015 Updated: May 28, 2015

 In homage to 93-year-old Iris Apfel, I wore four necklaces in purples, blues, and greens out to dinner last night. With a fuchsia skirt and leopard print shoes. Albert Maysles’ documentary about her, Iris, inspired me in multiple ways.

One way has nothing to do with fashion. I saw a couple of old-school virtues under her glorious plumage. Spoiler alert, her husband Charles Apfel celebrates his 100th birthday in a climax of the movie. They have been married since 1948. Part of that is good fortune, but surely part of it is loyalty.

She said, “I would never do anything to offend my husband,” or her mother, while her mother was living. That is super old-school, Confucian, Shakespearean. You got your filial piety, your respect. This used to keep civilization together. It probably used to keep people happier.

Iris Apfel chose a spectacular red embellished baseball cap for her husband, including him in a hunter-gatherer adventure at the flea market.

The famous 2005 exhibit  of Apfel’s clothes and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum was called “Rara Avis,” Latin for rare bird, and she is that.

“I was never pretty. I don’t like pretty,” she said in the movie. Like Vogue editor and wonderful writer Diana Vreeland, Apfel transcended her plain face and became a fashion icon through her creativity, intellect, and style. It’s not about vanity, it’s about communicating. For her, getting dressed is a playful art form, like making a collage with you as the base.

The other virtue I noted was plain old graciousness. Maysles films Apfel and her Park Avenue doorman posing in front of a portrait of her. She took his hand and drew him closer, so that he was more prominent, and asked the filmmaker to get a picture of the other doorman, as well. In another scene, as she was leaving the lobby, the doorman gave her some protective advice. The warmth between them implied a long history of decent behavior.

She chose a spectacular red embellished baseball cap for her husband, including him in a hunter-gatherer adventure at the flea market. He wore it again and again. She speaks about breaking her hip and protecting him from the information—showing the occasionally sneaky stoicism of her greatest generation. She was afraid he would worry, and his peace of mind was more important than her seeking any comfort from him.

She was criticized for saying people over size 10 should not wear stretch jeans. But you know what, we should not, unless we add a nice tunic to mask any tendency to resemble a bratwurst. At 93, she can say that.  She also condemned flip flops in the street, same difference.  She also said, “I can’t judge, it’s better to be happy than well-dressed.”

Her joy in fashion, her firm way of rejecting the idea of a chic uniform, is the cat’s pajamas, as she would say. So I am going to keep on piling on the accessories. As interesting as the idea of minimalism is, I will remember that glorious nature is not minimalist, and that we can all have fun with our self-expression. Like her, I will celebrate craftsmanship, surprise, and color. I will mix the fancy and the trashy. I will play.

I will also try to be respectful, kind, stoic, and loyal.

Apfel is all about following your own path. But that path has standards.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.